The whole counsel of God

While I’ve posted little here due to being snowed under with completing a thesis, I felt the need to post something in response to the news that the BYU Religious department is changing their curriculum (and consequently that of CES institutes worldwide). Previously, whereas core courses would focus on each on the standard works of Scripture, now these are to be de-emphasised in favour of four new courses arranged on a thematic basis: ‘Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel’, ‘Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon’, ‘Foundations of the Restoration’ and ‘The Eternal Family’. Bill Hamblin has more details, including a link to a letter outlining the plans, as well as some trenchant criticisms.

Some comments have defended the plans, pointing out that a) the original courses will remain available as optional courses and b) the content of the new courses has yet to be fully decided. These arguments are true to a degree. They are also irrelevant. Setting aside the fact that many institutes abroad don’t have the resources to indulge in optional courses, the real problem I see is with the thematic approach itself. I believe this approach is fundamentally flawed. BYU, of course, have the right to arrange their courses as they wish, but I cannot see this as anything other than a mistake. And – since they’re not the only ones to adopt this approach – I feel the need to spend some time showing why I think such an approach is utterly inadequate.

This is not to say that thematic approaches to the scriptures are always wrong at all times. There is a time and a season to all things. But I believe that when we adopt this as our primary way of reading and studying the scriptures then there are certain inevitable drawbacks that compromise our ability to understand and draw strength from the word of God. These drawbacks I see are as follows:

1) We pull passages out of context, and miss their full meaning

This is perhaps the most obvious problem with an approach that is likely to alight upon a verse here and a verse there. Bill Hamblin rightly comments on how the historical context can be lost. This is not the only context of importance either – there’s also the literary context, which in this case can often simply be a fancy way of talking about the verses immediately before and after a phrase. What might seem to say one thing may, when one looks at the passage around it, might mean something very different. And this isn’t a minor issue, as anyone trying to take 1 Nephi 4:12 as a guide for life might realise.

The Scriptures, aside maybe from the likes of Proverbs, were not written as a set of disconnected verses. Rather, as inspired by the Holy Ghost, the ancient prophets and apostles wrote letters, spoke sermons and described visions. Our verses and chapters, as useful as they can be, are mere modern conveniences that – if we let them – can actually hamper our understanding of scripture if we cut up the same sermon into tiny discrete and unrelated passages. If we wish to follow the arguments of Paul, the testimony of John or the sermons of Alma then we need to have an eye on the whole. It’s only when we take a passage like Alma 32-34 in full that we can really understand the point of what Alma and Amulek were saying. This is particularly true of the Book of Mormon, I might add, which alone of our standard works wasn’t even written as a set of books, but rather one glorious whole. And when we divide and subdivide it, and take a bite here ignoring all that is around that, we miss the big overarching themes that it is trying to teach us.

And yet, as serious as this loss of context can be, I feel the next two problems have the potential to be far more grave.

2) We place a ‘lens’ over our reading of the scriptures, and limit what they can teach us.

We all have ‘lenses’, by which I mean our upbringing, background, disposition and ideas affect what we read and understand. It’s a problem that as mortal, fallible humans we can never be entirely free of, although we can recognise and thus hopefully try to correct for this disposition. Scriptures have often been misunderstood because of these very lenses: that many of the early converts to the Church were of Protestant backgrounds, for example, led at least some to misunderstand what Nephi was talking about in 1 Nephi 13-14 in regards to the ‘great and abominable church’.

But when we direct our attention at particular scriptures with a certain theme in mind, we have chosen to place lenses upon ourselves. We look at certain passages with a preconceived idea as to what they are already about, and so we end up reading a portion of scripture solely with the idea of confirming what we already know or think we know. At worst, it can involve us in projecting our understanding of what a passage is meant to teach upon the Scriptures themselves, and so miss what it is really saying and effectively ignore the word of God in favour of own understanding (and I’ve seen this, regularly, in Sunday School). Even at best, by approaching them with a fixed idea as to what we are trying to learn about, we limit our interaction with the Scriptures by depriving them of the opportunity to surprise us, to teach us something new or to correct us, to speak to us of something unexpected. I believe the Scriptures – the same passage even – can be an inexhaustible reservoir of divine wisdom, yet by approaching them with only a particular theme in mind we can lose the opportunity to hear God teach us about something different that he needs us to learn. We limit what we can learn by deciding in advance what we are going to learn about. We cut ourselves off from all that those scriptures can teach us.

3) We restrict our reading to those passages that appear to ‘fit’ the theme, neglecting the rest of Scripture

A thematic approach can cause us to deprive ourselves from learning all a particular passage can teach us. It also – since it invariably involves reading only those passages that are considered to ‘fit’ a particular theme – can and usually does involve neglecting the rest of the Scriptures. Certain favourite verses are read again and again. Other passages, no less lacking in divine inspiration and in all that they have to teach us, are not read at all. We thus miss many parts of scripture, many of which are not only valuable and precious, but are essential.

Consider the Sunday School reading schedule, which in many respects is caught between thematic and other approaches depending on the year (with the D&C year at one end of the extreme, and the Book of Mormon at the other). During the Old Testament year, the reading schedule for Isaiah involves reading Isaiah 1-6, a selection of verses from 22-30 and 32, 40-56 and 63-65. Chapters 7-21, 31-39, 57-62 and chapter 66 are missed completely. Even if we were to count 22-30 as being read (which they aren’t, when one considers the reading covers only one verse, say, in chapters 22-23), that leaves 31 chapters of Isaiah that are never covered. Were one to leave one’s scripture reading up to that schedule (and sadly some do, and some don’t even do that), they would never read those chapters. And yet Isaiah is not only the one book especially recommended by the Saviour, but he gives us a commandment to read it (3 Nephi 31:1). When a set of themes are adopted as our primary approach to scripture, such precious portions are left out. We content ourselves with reading a few preselected passages and miss the rest. And that rest can well be life-changing and life-giving. They might even help us understand – quelle surprise – those bits we do read.

Limiting ourselves to only a portion of available truth can mislead us. One can see in this in how we see God. In the 17th century, men were so caught up in his wrath and his justice that they forgot his love and mercy, and so often failed to show the same to others. In the present age we often talk about his love and compassion, and are prone to neglect his justice and righteousness, and hatred of sin, and so fail to teach and live those standards that are necessary to prepare us to enter his presence. When we only read certain scriptures, and not others, we leave ourselves open to being misguided or deceived.

Even if we escape this, however, what certainly does happen is that by confining ourselves to only a portion of scripture we deprive ourselves of experiencing the full blessings it has to offer us. We cut ourselves off from all that it has to teach us. We pick the lessons we learn from those passages we do read, and of course we cannot learn anything from that which we don’t read. And God has given us such a range of scripture for a reason. God did not give us an inspired Gospel principles manual, though He very well could have done. He chose instead to give us the scriptures he did, with the promise that more was to come as we accept, use, believe and obey that which we already have. We cannot become ready to receive more if we reject – even from simple neglect – that which we already have.

Reading and studying the scriptures is not a simple matter of trying to learn particular ‘facts’ about God and the Gospel. It is a spiritual discipline, to which we must apply our whole souls, and which in return our whole souls can be strengthened. We cannot simply condense and communicate those ‘facts’ to people, or give them the ‘cliff notes’, and expect it to benefit anyone because that is not where the blessings come from. The blessings come as we apply our minds, and our faith to the word of God, and in return a channel of spiritual communication is opened which can guide us and empower us. An approach to scripture that leads us to limit what we can learn, and leads us to avoid whole portions of the word that God has given us, deprives us of the full stream of revelation that is contained within it. Let us not narrow our reading of His word, but seek instead to learn from the whole counsel of God, to learn from all that He has given us and so be open to all the blessings He has to give us.

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